When Vladimir Putin alleges with the highest confidence that Sochi Olympics will be “the safest Olympics in history” it is hard to take him seriously. Sochi is an odd location for the world’s largest sporting event—and for more reasons than one.
An elaborate infrastructure consisting of 15 modern venues stands tall and proud on the swampy Sochi ground that was once infested with malaria. That the infrastructure is elaborate by no means implies that it is good. As reported by The Economist, the ski jump has been redone many times, newly laid sewage pipes burst and seacoast fortifications cracked soon after installation. Underlying Putin’s boastful claim is the bleak reality of corruption gone uninvestigated and a five-fold increase in costs left unquestioned. If for nothing else, the Sochi games will at least be remembered for being the most expensive Olympics in history.
While the International Olympic Committee cites the “preservation of human dignity” as a “fundamental tenet,” there is concern that Russia may have violated its own labor laws. A Human Rights Watch report from February 2013 documents its exploitation of migrant labor, and another concern is that Islamist groups may attack Sochi as the games take place not too far from Caucasus and its debilitating civil conflict. Labor rights violations and security issues have been common to several host countries in the past, you may say. But what distinguishes Russia further is a piece of legislation signed in June by Mr. Putin that outlaws “propaganda of non-traditional sexual relations,” which has caused quite a stir. A compromise for the duration of Olympics for non-Russian competitors may be made, but prospects for LGBTQ activists and sympathizers in Russia seem dismal overall. Not only does Putin seem to be decidedly in support of the legislation, but also more than three-quarters of Russians polled by the Levada Centre say that they too support the ban on gay “propaganda” to minors.
Russia undertook Sochi 2014 as a means of manifesting its power and asserting its legitimacy. Given the amount of money spent and controversies generated, the stakes are higher than they have ever been. It seems very much that history will view Putin and Sochi 2014 in the same light, assessing the success of one from the performance of the other.